Intentional Ignorance from Reagan to Us


“…I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that’s true — but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not.”

–Ronald Reagan, 4 March 1987

There is a germ of truth in the malign fatuity Ronald Reagan (chief magistrate of the United States, 1981-1989) offered to explain the great crisis of his presidency, which should have resulted in his impeachment. (It was probably written for him by Peggy Noonan, who developed a nice line in maudlin propaganda.) In the gap between what one knows to be the case and what one chooses to believe, a multitude of sins and crimes can be covered over.

Although memory is an essential part of the actor’s armory, Reagan had developed his ability to forget into an art, even before he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. What he remembered was what he (or rather his handlers) chose to remember, whether factual or not.

In 1985 and 1986 the Reagan administration secretly sold more than a hundred tons of anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles to the government of Iran in order to provide money for the Contras, a mercenary army attacking the government and people of Nicaragua, support for which Congress eventually banned. The US military advised its Contra hirelings to attack “soft targets,” with horrific results. An eyewitness to a Contra raid in Jinotega province said,

“Rosa had her breasts cut off. Then they cut into her chest and took out her heart. The men had their arms broken, their testicles cut off and their eyes poked out. They were killed by slitting their throats and pulling the tongue out through the slit.”

These acts were repeated throughout Nicaragua (one of the instigators being the present US ambassador to Iraq), by people whom Reagan compared to the Founding Fathers. But when the Tower Commission began looking into the selling of arms to Iran, Reagan was asked about his conflicting testimony on those sales. He referred to the notes that his handlers provided and read out in a clear voice, “If the question comes up at the Tower Board meeting, you might want to say that you were surprised”!


Reagan’s more fantastic lies — such as his assertion to the Israeli prime minister that he had been present at the liberation of a German concentration camp — may have signaled his own case of Alzheimer’s, but much more serious is what Studs Terkel has called “national Alzheimer’s Disease” — the forgetting of our country’s recent history, and particularly the crimes for which we, as citizens of an ostensibly democratic polity, are all responsible.

It is this national Alzheimer’s that the propagandists for US administrations can rely on to put across even obvious frauds like Reagan. Of course it is not a medical condition of the US electorate, but it also cannot be ascribed to the stupidity of the majority of the population, as many self-styled liberals seem to do. People are not fools, but when well over a thousand billion dollars is spent every year to convince Americans what they should think and how they should live (“marketing”), it is bound to have an effect.

So we forget (with the intense encouragement of the media and government) that in Reagan’s so-called electoral landslides of 1980 and 1984, three-quarters of the eligible voters did not vote for him. Polls in both years showed that Americans strongly rejected his policies. By the time he and his successor and continuator left office, when the effects of their domestic programs were apparent, Reagan was tied with Nixon as the least popular ex-president.


Ronald Reagan’s funeral was a carefully scripted propaganda-fest organized by the Bush administration — nothing like it had been seen in Washington for forty years, since the assassination of John Kennedy. The actual script was a 300-page book; the slavish media coverage was, in Alex Cockburn’s phrase, “an electronic Nuremberg rally.” But strangely omitted was not only the fact that Reagan was capable of intentional ignorance but also that he was a mass murderer. A more fitting eulogy for him was pronounced by Fr. Miguel d’Escoto, former foreign minister of Nicaragua:

“…I pray that God in his infinite mercy and goodness forgive him for having been the butcher of my people, for having been responsible for the deaths of some 50,000 Nicaraguans. We cannot, we should not ever forget the crimes he committed in the name of what he falsely labeled freedom and democracy. More perhaps than any other US. President, Reagan convinced many around the world that the U.S. is a fraud, a big lie. Not only was it not democratic, but in fact the greatest enemy of the right of self-determination of peoples. Reagan … was known as the great communicator, and I believe that that is true only if one believes that to be a great communicator means to be a good liar…”

We have forgotten among other things, in these days of the Christian Right, that the Reagan wars against the people of Central America were wars against the church, and that they were already underway during the presidency of that good Christian, Jimmy Carter. The decade began with the murder of an archbishop at the altar by a CIA-backed death-squad and ended with the murder of six Jesuit intellectuals and the rape and murder of their staff at the University of Central America by soldiers led by graduates from America’s notorious School of the Americas. The organized resistance to the murder of hundreds of thousands under the direction of the US came from the Catholic church in Central America and from Protestant churches in North America that organized support and accompaniment programs. The killing of Archbishop Romero (March 24, 1980) and the murders of the Jesuits (November 16, 1989) were not accidents but policy.

Noam Chomsky asks whether we would have forgotten so easily, had in 1980’s Czechoslovakia a popular archbishop been murdered in church by Russian agents, more than 70,000 Czechs slaughtered by Soviet-sponsored death-squads, and Vaclav Havel and a half-dozen associates in the “Velvet Revolution” had their brains cut out by Russian-trained and directed soldiers?


“Eight years, eight dreary, miserable mind-numbing years, the years of the age of Reagan,” wrote the late conservative commentator Murray Rothbard in 1989. He was however wrong in what he saw as a “glimmer of hope” — “that Reaganism might not survive much beyond Reagan.” In fact of course Reaganism lives on, even more fanatically, in the current administration — not only the same ideas but the same people. Those running the “war on terrorism” now, once announced “war on terrorism” as the theme of the Reagan administration’s foreign policy, in contrast to Carter’s “human rights” (itself a lie).

Reversing the traditional order, the farce of Grenada was a prelude to the tragedy of Iraq: in each case a defenseless country is attacked in part because, as Neocon Michael Ledeen put it last year, “Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business.” And yet most Americans have already been encouraged to forget (if they ever knew) that George Bush’s invasion of Iraq may have killed more than fifty thousand Iraqis, in addition to a thousand American troops. (Clinton of course killed more — hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, many of them children, died from a decade of sanctions.)

The splendid Reaganite invasion of Grenada should have alerted us to the ineptitude of the Reagan-Bush military. Clinton’s reluctance to use US troops on the ground in his attack on Serbia (falsely described as “humanitarian”) — leaving the work to air power and NATO — in retrospect looks like a canny avoidance of the arrogant incompetence of the occupation of Iraq. Clinton preferred air attacks — such as that on a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan, now forgotten, which resulted in the deaths of thousands, as Chomsky pointed out.

In G. W. Bush’s administration, new Neocon is but old Reaganite writ large, and they fear the same enemy: the American public. When the US populace comes to understand what is being done in their name, they are appalled, so they must be distracted, somehow. For example, an on-going poll by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations showed that seventy per cent of Americans who lived through the Vietnam War agreed that “the war was not a mistake, it was fundamentally wrong and immoral.” More than a generation of US propaganda, Republican and Democrat , was employed vigorously to attack this view, held by large majority of Americans, under the name of the “Vietnam syndrome.”

Representatives of America’s Israeli client were particularly concerned that such popular revulsion would lead to criticism of Israel’s decades-long occupation, with all its brutality and racism. One of the Neocons’ first appearances in the 1990s was as advisers to politicians to the right of Israel’s war-criminal prime minister, Ariel Sharon.


A nation founded on two of the greatest crimes in human history, the destruction of native Americans and the enslavement of native Africans, has a lot to forget. The effect of many interconnected political movement in late twentieth-century America was to combat the intentional forgetting of these crimes, and many of these movements took their rise out of the opposition to US attacks on southeast and southwest Asia.

The result of the forced remembering is a nation in many ways far more civilized today than it was in the mid-twentieth century, as Chomsky points out. The US executive could then carry on a savage war against the people of South Vietnam — for the crime of not accepting the government that we had picked out for them — for years before there was the slightest protest in the US. In contrast, some of the largest anti-war protests in history, at home and abroad, occurred before the US launched its latest attack on Iraq.

The great crimes have been recalled, and others (so common half a century ago as not to be noticed as crimes, such as racism, sexism, abortion, euthanasia, and capital punishment) are the objects of attention. Of course this consciousness rose even as American administrations (both Democrat and Republican) seemed ever more willing to risk the very survival of the human race for their own demands for hegemony in the world. The US government under either party continues to be what M. L. King perceptively called it thirty-five years ago, “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”


Instead of the wholesale and retail war-criminals whom the official political parties have thrown up for our consideration this November, the US polity needs public figures who reject the intentional ignorance required by the big business backers of American politics. They must say, like Hamlet’s friend Horatio,

…let me speak to the yet unknowing world
How these things came about: so shall you hear
Of carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts,
Of accidental judgments, casual slaughters,
Of deaths put on by cunning and forced cause,
And, in this upshot, purposes mistook
Fall’n on the inventors’ reads: all this can I
Truly deliver.

And they can, too.

All of this suggests that at least part of the role of the political leader in the US today should be like that of a traditional psychoanalyst, attempting to uncover the patient’s forgotten history. In the case of the country, the analysis will be finally a narrative of class — and that is to say a narrative of crime.

And of course we might expect that — in politics as in therapy — if this unearthing is done well, its agent may become the focus of quite irrational hatred as well as excessive love — rather like Ralph Nader.

CARL ESTABROOK is a Visiting Scholar University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a CounterPunch columnist. He can be reached at: